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Climate Change: Too Much At Stake

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The climate change talks in Copenhagen this month may be our last chance to agree to a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol--and perhaps to get authentic commitments from nations around the world to cutting greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming. Experts have declared the search for a new climate treaty is an out-and-out fight between the US and China. And opinion is divided as to whether the US must have law in place before signing any such agreement.

Everyone acknowledges there is just too much at stake to take sides any more. Issues like this, that seem intractable, can be difficult for our leaders to 'own' and address. Copenhagen alone won't be the 'answer'. We need to look at our own relationship to what's happening and what commitments we're personally willing to make. I've been discussing this with one of my colleagues, Dr. Rick Fullerton, and would like to share his perspective with you. And I urge you all to play a role in creating a sustainable future.

I continue to be struck by the environmental challenges facing planet earth. With signs of increasing public awareness about the deepening climate crisis, it is gratifying to sense a noticeable shift taking place in my own and others' behaviour. For instance, I see more and more people supporting recycling programs, choosing Energy Star appliances, and driving fuel-efficient cars. And we change our light bulbs! Yet is it enough?

At best, such actions represent well-intentioned but relatively modest gestures when viewed in relation to the major sources of carbon dioxide that humans influence. Compounding the situation are the conflicting messages, increased costs and lack of feedback on the contribution of such initiatives. Still, these individual decisions to address global warming are essential demonstrations of the commitment to do whatever can be done to make a difference. Even if it is not enough, it is something. But what else might we do?

To help sort out what I might do, I have been reflecting on the dynamics underlying the choices that we make in deciding to act or not act when confronted by such big messy challenges. It seems that, for the most part, we rely on our experience as the source of our understanding and, in turn, our decisions. Thus, the educational efforts of environmental leaders do make a difference. For example, "An Inconvenient Truth", the Oscar-winning documentary by Al Gore, and public service announcements featuring authorities like David Suzuki have helped shift our awareness about the seriousness and urgency of the situation we face.

Another facet of how learning is shaping our behaviour can be seen in the school curriculum. Thankfully, children today study environmental matters and receive much more accurate and up-to-date information than did many of their parents or grandparents. Over a decade or two, this knowledge will hopefully alter the baseline understanding of necessary and beneficial environmental choices.

While we as individuals may argue that we did not consciously choose to pollute our water, create acid rain, deplete our agricultural land, clearcut our rain forests, wreck the ozone layer or cause global warming, likewise, individual actions alone will not resolve the problems. Rather, the challenge today is mobilizing urgent action at the corporate, national and international levels--before the mean global temperature reaches a point that triggers unstoppable warming or other catastrophic consequences. Failure to do this soon will cause untold problems such rising sea levels, massive migration, extreme weather, desertification, widespread famine, accelerated species extinction.... and ultimately put at risk the future of life on earth.

While I don't have any quick fixes to offer, here are a few ideas that may have potential:

1. As within, so without. All change begins with me.

Recognize that who we are and what we stand for is the starting point for all significant change. Looking inside ourselves to clarify what is important is an essential step. What is our commitment to our children and grandchildren, to future generations and to other species with which we share the planet? How do we balance this commitment to the future with our present concerns and interests? What can we do to make our actions congruent with our intentions?

2. Build strong, authentic relationships.

There is power in numbers. Yet it is most often small, committed groups that produce significant change. Wherever we are in the system, we always have the opportunity to reinforce and align ourselves with others--to collaborate, to support mutual efforts, and to realize synergies. In this regard, one of the most powerful approaches may be to promote intergenerational conversations so that people of all ages can come together to create a sustainable future.

3. Accept personal responsibility for the environment.

Being responsible for global warming and other environmental challenges is an important prerequisite to moving forward. Resistance that shows up as blaming others or picking fights is more likely to strengthen the denial and resolve of those who benefit most from the current situation. We need to be able to clearly acknowledge and own where we are before we can take the next step.

4. Create a better future.

Each of us has a voice and the power to declare possibilities and commitments. We create the future in our speaking and listening, inviting others to join in the process. To the extent that we speak from our hearts about the world we want to create, we will attract energy, resources and support--and inspire others to act.

5. Act with integrity.

We can influence those who occupy positions of power and influence by how we vote-- whether it be by the ballots we check on election day, by the stores we frequent, by the investments we make, or by the company we choose. It is by taking actions like these and by making direct requests and promises based on clear intentions that change actually happens.

In the days leading up to the post-Kyoto talks in Copenhagen, we will be bombarded with media messages from politicians, commentators, interest groups, and environmental experts. I urge us all to listen for the assessments, possibilities and actions that are offered to deal with the defining challenge of our time. Whatever happens, we will all have a role to play in creating a sustainable future. Let's make sure we do it well.

© 2009 Jim Selman and Rick Fullerton. All rights reserved.

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Climate Change | U.S. EPA

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